I wasn’t going to go out of my way to read The Magician’s Land. I’m so ambivalent about this series. But there it was on my library’s New Books shelf … it seemed almost rude not to borrow it. At the very least I was hoping to find closure. Honestly, I got more than that. This is a series that has steadily improved over the three books, with The Magician’s Land probably offering the most stable and enjoyable story.
My issues with The Magicians and The Magician King could be summarized as: “So what?” So what if being an adult magician in the real world sucks? So what if Fillory is real but you got kicked out? Quentin Coldwater was an annoying, unsympathetic protagonist who whined because his life didn’t make any sense. As if it was supposed to in the first place.
The other dimension of my disappointment was that I clearly retained nothing between books. I barely remembered who was whom. (And it doesn’t help that there are so many people whose names begin with the same letter: Poppy and Plum and Penny, oh my! Josh and Julia and Janet, oh my! Don’t be a dick, Grossman.) As the concluding entry in this trilogy, The Magician’s Land ties together a lot of the plots begun in either of its two predecessors—but I didn’t remember anything about them. And I didn’t really care.
I don’t know why I am so apathetic about these books. I don’t think I can explain it without going back and re-reading the other two—which I am not going to do! But I can tell you why I liked this book a lot more: Quentin is much more tolerable.
At thirty years old, he has actually grown up. He is taking his expulsion from Fillory in stride. He picks himself up, dusts himself off, and gets a real job. Sure, he still makes mistakes. He’s still obsessive. He bites off more than he can chew. But no longer does he whine, pout, or make excuses for himself. This is obviously intentional, as Grossman later has Quentin point out to others how he has changed. Quentin is a much more likable character in this book, and that makes a huge difference.
Because, hell, Grossman can write. He has a talent for packing entire books’ worth of ideas into a sentence or paragraph. Here’s an example:
… some of the dragons survived. They will repopulate, if they can remember how. I believe it has been several millennia since any of them had sex. We in the order have been assisting them with the research.
That’s Penny on the aftermath of the dragon–god war. Imagine it, though: creatures so old and long-lived that they have forgotten how to reproduce. In a few slick sentences Grossman conjures up an entire world’s worth of ideas, and I’m a little envious.
It’s just a shame that I don’t like his style of characterization more. The Magician’s Land is still frustrating at times, particularly the conclusion, which is rushed and even trite. Grossman just can’t resist tying up every little loose end. Quentin even finds his plant in the end. Insert eyeroll here. I’m supposed to care that Fillory is dying because all these others care, but they suck at trying to figure out how to stop the apocalypse. I have never seen such a laid-back, casual group of protagonists. And all the while Grossman is feeding them lines of dialogue that make them sound like magic-wielding royal hipsters.
Quentin might actually be the most likeable of them all. Imagine that.
So here we are, at the end of the trilogy (though I wouldn’t put it past Grossman to milk a spin-off series or two from this). And I guess, overall, I just can’t bring myself to get worked up about this series. I recognize that, on one level, Grossman is trying to put his unique stamp on portal fantasy while simultaneously deconstructing our fascination with magical worlds that are layered atop our own. But there is a level of metafictional winking happening here, where it is as if he is turning to the reader and going, “See what I did there? Eh? See that? That’s gold,” and expecting us to share in his private little genre joke. But that’s not really what I signed up for.
I’m calling it: Lev Grossman is the hipsterest of all fantasy writers. If you like ironic fantasy, then by all means, this series is for you. For me, though, it just never quite gels into a cohesive, compelling story. That’s a shame, but that’s how it is.